By the time he reached the razor-wire, the Syrian landscape had shrugged off the delusion of the irrigated greenery around Damascus. Here, the Old Man, the desert, could not be hidden and refused to be banished. Cold even in the oppressive heat, crueler than the scalped links fencing out trespassers, the sands smiled sadistically, remembering centuries of slaughter and dreaming of future screams of anguish.
For the man in the truck, gazing across the landscape, the screams returned to him now. Howling, gasped, panicked. His own and many around him. Images of dank stone, blood and waste-soiled cells. Eyes. Faces. Tormentors and their hideous tools. The weeping of grown men echoed inside his mind as the winds stirred the dry sands around his vehicle. He squeezed the steering wheel tightly, refusing their summons, determined more than ever to rise above their damage and demons. He had come too far to be defeated now.
He stepped out of the begrimed pickup truck and slammed the door. Glancing over the barren land, he followed the fence line to the horizon. The entrance was at a large distance around the perimeter of the compound, hidden in part by an outcropping of desert rocks. His well-paid sources had been accurate: an entrance from the rear would likely go unnoticed. And what madman would ever break into this place? He did not expect vigilance.
He moved around to the back of the truck and untied a dusty canvas covering the bed. Underneath were several heavy crates. He opened each, removing weapons and explosives, strapping them to his body, and moved to the passenger side of the vehicle. From the glove compartment, he removed a map, glanced at it fleetingly, and pocketed the ruffled pages. It was memorized.
Night fell quickly in the deserts of Syria. In the darkness and desolation, short metallic clips sounded and fell mute on the empty sands. As a shadow, he passed through an opening cut into the gray outlines of the fence and vanished into the blackness.
Through the sandy winds sweeping across the compound, lights twinkled from a handful of incandescent bulbs. Near the gated entrance, he left a guard inside a small shed, seeming to doze peacefully, the unnatural angle of his neck observable only at close range. Before him, a desolate stone structure was dimly outlined by the band of the Milky Way, a single window of light visible in the darkness. Voices could be heard, at times loud and rude, spilling clumsily from the room. Harsh, staccato bursts of laughter confirmed the presence of the prison guards inside. He darted past the window and pressed himself flat against the compound walls. He slid along the rough surface toward the door, arm raised, his hand ending in an extended, metallic cylinder. He made no sound until he spun and kicked in the flimsy wooden door.
He saw four men around a small table, cigarettes in their mouths, pornography and cards strewn haphazardly across the stained wood. As the door swung madly on its hinges and smashed into the wall, they jumped, confused, turning toward him. Even that small pause meant death.
He fired several shots in the confined space. The explosions were amplified and echoed throughout the stone chamber, spilling down the poorly lit hallway opposite to the gunman. Two of the men arched, their heads snapping backward as the bullets blew open their skulls. The whitewashed walls were sprayed red. As the other two men lurched upward and towards him, he spun, his right foot arcing like a sledgehammer coming down, whipping the nearest man backward onto the table. Glasses shattered, and cards dispersed as the guard rolled roughly and fell hard on the stone floor. The intruder channeled the momentum of the spinning motion, and his gun hand came whirling around toward the second man, who now stood unprepared, barely having obtained a fighting stance. His attempted blow was smashed aside, and his jaw shattered as the man’s gun arm brought the metal crashing downward. All four guards now lay still around the table, two dead, two unconscious.
The assailant aimed his weapon at the guard near his feet, firing directly into his head. He then turned and aimed at the other prone figure, rendering a similar judgment. He studied the faces carefully. “At night, five remain once the others leave for the day. And Mahjub works late.”He didn’t need to be told this by his informant. Yes, he knew Mahjub worked late. He would never forget. Nor would he forget his face. Mahjub was not in this room. He must be….below. He had been busy, perhaps. But not now. By now, he would have heard the shots. He would be afraid.
The assassin smiled.
Two floors below, buried deeply in the Syrian sands, a long hallway with numerous cells ran its begrimed course. Broken men were locked behind stone-walled enclosures with iron doors. The cells were like graves: shallow pits scraped into the rock, devoid of light or even the space to stand. At the far end of the hallway, opposite the stairs, was a small room without a door. Inside Mahjub Samhan clutched a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. Both hands shook as he cowered behind an upturned table in the middle of the room. He cried out in a high-pitched voice.
“Kamil? Saif?” There was only silence. “Bassam? Nadeem!” He wiped the dripping sweat from his eyebrows and tried to focus toward the stairs. A solitary bulb dangled limply from exposed wires in the middle of the hallway. His left leg began to shake. “Answer me! Who is there? What is happening?”
Suddenly, before he could focus or react, a shadow seemed to leap from nowhere, an explosion slapped his ears, and the bulb burst. Shards of glass rained on the stone floor like small bells. A terrible darkness blotted out his vision. In panic, Mahjub screamed, firing shots wildly into the blackness.
A bright light leapt from across the darkness, blinding him. A sizzling rod landed only a foot away from the table. Momentarily confused and distracted by the fire, Mahjub stared down at the stick burning beside him. Explosive? Too late, he turned his weapon toward the sound of rushing footsteps from the hallway, the searing afterimage of the flame obscuring his sight.
A gunshot rang. His right shoulder exploded in agony. His knees buckled, and he fell backward against the wall, releasing a howl of pain as he slid to the floor. He dropped the knife from his left hand and reached over to hold his injured shoulder, grimacing as he felt the warm blood coat his arm and fingers.
He squinted against the light as it was raised above his head. He saw a tall, dark shape behind the flare, a gun in one hand aimed at him. In a swift motion, the table was righted and the flare violently wedged into the rotting boards like a candlestick. The figure crouched beside him.
“You always were a coward, Mahjub,” spoke the voice in accented Arabic. Trying to block the pain, Mahjub strained to place the origin. Saudi? Pakistani?He stared at the face partially concealed in shadow. He had never seen it before. Light hair, blue eyes…American? Nothing made sense. Had the Americans turned on them after all this time? Did they need to bury this operation so completely? With all the chaos in the nation, did they care so much now?
“You don’t recognize me, do you, Mahjub?” the figure asked, almost with amusement. “How fitting, to lie here in pain, your death awaiting you, and not know the first thing about your tormenter.”
Mahjub felt the panic well within him again. “Sir, please, don’t kill me. Whatever we have done wrong, we can fix. We will not speak. We will disappear. Please, not like this.”
Mahjub’s eyes widened at the sound he heard. The man with the gun laughed. Laughed at him! “Mahjub, how do you live outside this place?” The Syrian only looked at the gunman in distress.
“I mean, when you buy fruit at the market, mixing with decent people, or entertain your mother-in-law, do you think about breaking men’s fingers? Sodomizing them? Do you think of blood and vomit when you stir her coffee? Do their screams, their pleas for mercy keep you awake at night?”
“Sir, no, please, I don’t know…”
“You know,” said the man, his blue eyes seemingly glazed over, frosted, utterly cold. The shadowed form whispered ominously, “See, I know what you do, what you are.” Mahjub felt his blood run cold.
“These poor men here,” said the pale man, gesturing toward the hallway, “they don’t know who you are, but they know what you are.” The man spoke with such venom, a snake’s hiss. “It took some time to track you down.”
Mahjub began to cry, clutching his blasted shoulder, grime and blood on his hands and face. A man with such power over others, now powerless, weeping like a child. “Please….”
There was no pity in the cold blue eyes before him. “Consider me more merciful than you ever were.”
The man stood up and aimed the weapon.
“No!” Mahjub began to scream, but a final gunshot ripped through his throat, silencing his cry as he fell against the wall. He gasped vainly for breath, his healthy arm at the gurgling wound, his eyes swimming, his feet kicking madly as he drowned in his own blood. It was over in less than a minute.
The assassin spat on the dead man, turned, and carried a set of keys from the room. One by one, he unlocked the doors along the hallway as he walked toward the stairs. He spoke loudly. “They’re all dead! Leave now, if you can. God soon brings fire to this place!”
Soft sounds of bodies stirring could be heard within the cells. The hinges of one door ground behind him. When he reached the first step, he dropped the large keychain and ascended to the upper floors.
The truck made a startling sound in the desert night as he turned the key. Twenty minutes. That was enough. If they had not escaped yet, they were as good as dead anyway. He stared down at a small radio transmitter on the seat next to him. A red light blinked at the upper-right corner. He pressed the button underneath, and a bright orange glow flashed before him in the darkness. Several seconds later, the sound arrived, the rumbling blast from an explosion as the compound was blown into the sky, rubble and embers raining down on the dark sands.
The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
He doubted Jesus had meant it that way. He shifted gears and raced away from the inferno.
It had begun.